It’s World Environment Day, a day dedicated by the UN to encourage worldwide awareness and action for the protection of our environment. More than 143 countries participate annually, and this year’s host country is China, with the theme: Fight Air Pollution.
It’s an appropriate aspiration for the largest greenhouse gas emitting nation. It’s estimated that air pollution causes more than a million deaths a year in China alone—not to mention destroying more than 20 tonnes of food crops like rice, wheat, and soybeans, worth roughly $38B.
But China is not alone. Worldwide, poor air quality is blamed for more than 6 million premature deaths per year. Most pollution victims are in developing countries, where indoor smoke from the combustion of fuels ranging from manure to wood to kerosene pose a significant threat to health. Children are at particular risk; a UNICEF study found that 17 million infants live in areas where air pollution is higher than international limits.
But air quality affects those in developed and affluent nations as well. The U.S. American Lung Association estimates that nearly 40% of the U.S. population are at risk of premature death or lung or cardiovascular disease as a result of ozone or particle pollution. This costs U.S. ratepayers about 4.36 cents per kilowatt-hour of electricity, or approximately 1/3 the rate of the average homeowner.
The Problem is Fossil Fuels
The primary source of air pollution is fossil fuel combustion. Pollution—which can be comprised of gases and particulate—is generated as a side effect when power plants and vehicles turn coal, oil, and gas into energy. Many of the pollutants that are harmful to humans are also terrible for our planet. These so-called greenhouse gases (GHGs) become trapped in the atmosphere and lead to global warming, which in turn is destabilizing our climate.
Climate change itself is hazardous for human health, too. A warming planet results in higher—and in some cases deadly—temperatures. Warmer seasons impact crops and make pests, allergens, and diseases more virulent. Global warming is to blame for drought, flooding, and wild fires, all of which cause significant human suffering and economic loss.
The Solution is Renewable Energy
There is a way out of both the air pollution and climate change crises: renewable energy. Whether electricity generation in the form of utility-scale wind and solar projects to intensified electrification and biofuels, renewable resources can significantly reduce GHG emissions and the corresponding air pollution.
For example, in 2016, the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) reported that the clean electricity generation from wind in 2015 represented an estimated $7.3B in avoided health care costs alone.
Cleaner air and a cooler planet aren’t the only human-helping impacts of renewable energy. Conventional fossil fuel energy generation is a water hog. Water is required to drill/mine fossil resources, it provides the source of steam for fossil-fuel driven turbines, and it is used to cool power plants. The result is water pollution, damaged ecosystems, and outsized fresh water withdrawals.
Most renewables, on the other hand, use very little water. A study by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory found that a significant shift in electricity generation to renewable sources would significantly reduce the need for water to generate power—a welcome change in times of drought and ever-increasing global population.
The Opportunity is Material Leadership
Companies, cities and other institutions, worldwide, are moving to adopt renewable energy, either through an overhaul of the electricity grid, use of biofuels and other clean technologies, or implementation of electric vehicles and EV charging infrastructure.
The predominant motive behind this adoption has been financial: the levelized cost of renewable energy has now reached a point of price parity. A new report from IRENA indicates that onshore wind and solar PV will both be less expensive than any fossil fuel alternative by 2020—with prices expected to continue to fall. As a result, companies are moving toward integrated sourcing strategies that include both traditional and renewable procurement.
A secondary motive has been environmental. Companies recognize that business-as-usual may not be so usual in a world with a changing climate. To mitigate impacts and work to reverse global warming, companies are setting science-based carbon reduction targets in record numbers. Typically, fulfilling a deep reduction goal relies on two methodologies: 1) reducing consumption as much as possible through efficiency and 2) counterbalancing the rest with renewables.
For very forward-thinking companies and communities, however, there is a third powerful motivator: people. Take Schneider Electric client DaVita for example: one of the leading providers of kidney care services in the U.S. In early 2019, the company announced that it had procured two long-term renewable energy power purchase agreements to address 100% of the company’s North American operations. The projects are estimated to avoid carbon dioxide emissions equivalent to 52,000 U.S. homes annually.
For DaVita, using renewable energy was in keeping with the company’s mission of delivering health, and consistent with their value of community building.
Today, leading companies can take material action on carbon emissions with renewables and drive not only energy independence and cost reduction, but improvements in human health as well. That makes renewables not only an economic imperative but a moral one. This World Environment Day, we encourage your company to make a commitment to renewable energy and #BeatAirPollution.
Want to learn more about how your company can use renewables? Download our new Definitive Guide to Renewable Electricity.